A Legacy Born from Compassion and Human Connection

2015 – Like so many proud mothers, Ellen Cohen watched her son graduate from college this spring. Later in the summer she helped organize his move to the Big Apple to pursue his passion in film. Twenty years ago, the two of them spent a profoundly different summer enduring the pain and shock of watching their beloved husband and father weaken from lung cancer. This month, on September 10, marks two decades since Ken Schwartz’s death. Such an elapse of time feels “strangely unreal” to Ellen.

Sadly, she knows that feeling of unreality all too well. When Ken was diagnosed with cancer, it was a complete surprise. His downward spiral was fast, only 10 months. She and Ken never got to the stage of “living with cancer”—they just kept reeling from the surprise of bad news after bad news. What gave Ken some rootedness was his writing. He poured his heart and soul—and grief—into the article that ran in The Boston Globe Magazine in the summer of 1995. Ellen recalls that it was painful to read his drafts; the writing was so personal, despite its original emphasis on health policy.

The publishing of his article created some positive surprises for Ellen and Ken. The public response was overwhelming; it struck such an empathic chord for so many readers. His story seemed to resonate for two reasons: his emphasis on the human connection in healthcare, and his fear that the economics of healthcare would result in a “rationing of empathy.” Hundreds of people wrote to Ken—a remarkable fact in our busy and distracted society—and Good Morning America then produced his story for the entire nation to watch. Ellen is convinced that the public outpouring of support for Ken added weeks to his life, and she is forever grateful for that extra time together.

Ken’s vision to preserve the human connection continues to strike a resounding chord because “everyone wants to feel they are cared about.”

Ellen is also deeply gratified by the success of the Schwartz Center. Over the past two decades, the organization that Ken founded on his deathbed and that Ellen helped to build as part of her grief work, has grown to reach caregivers and patients across the United States, in Canada and throughout the United Kingdom. More than 125,000 clinicians each year and millions of patients benefit from the Schwartz Center’s education and support in the delivery of compassionate healthcare. Twenty years ago, Ellen would “never have imagined that the Schwartz Center would grow to have such a big reach.” Ken’s vision to preserve the human connection in healthcare continues to strike a resounding chord because, as Ellen believes, “everyone wants to feel they are cared about.”

The Schwartz Center’s tremendous growth over the past 20 years has also created a Compassionate Care Community that fulfills another fundamental human need—the desire to be part of something larger than oneself. This Community of membership and affiliation—manifest through Schwartz Center Rounds® sessions, monthly webinars, thought leadership convenings, regular communications and an upcoming conference—carries forth the values Ken embraced in life. Ken was a person who cared about relationships, and the Schwartz Center reflects the importance of relationships in the world of healthcare.

When clinicians in other parts of the country speak passionately about how the Schwartz Center Rounds program strengthens their relationships with patients and with colleagues, Ellen sees Ken’s spirit kept alive. For her, the Schwartz Center’s current focus on educating caregivers and redefining quality care reflects who Ken was and what he cared about: both people and policy. And, in some ways, the Schwartz Center is on the same journey as Ellen and Ken’s son. The organization is now on the threshold of adulthood, with strong experiences behind and a brave new world in front, ready to make even more of a difference. Ellen takes comfort that Ken’s devastating illness led to the creation of the Schwartz Center and, in turn, its bright future “helps to keep Ken present despite the passage of time.”

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